The English word “virtue” comes from Latin virtus, literally “manliness.” Of course, in ancient philosophy, there was a transition from simple “manliness” to real virtue (like those I discussed a couple of weeks ago), and then deeper, more complex transitions over time to arrive at the wide range of modern views on virtue and ethics.
But as George Orwell and anyone who has sought to change terms (gender-neutral nouns and pronouns especially, such as “chairperson” or the intentional abandonment of feminine forms like “stewardess”) can tell you, words have power. That’s why I studied classics, why I examine Scripture in the original language (as much as possible), and why I prefer literal translations of texts to “gist” translations. Words are not merely the means by which we convey sentiments or communicate ideas; they are ideas.
Here’s what I mean: For physical things, when words fail, we can point to the physical reality of the object. If I say “apple,” and you don’t know what I’m talking about, I point to an apple. But with abstract things, that’s not possible. Abstract ideas only exist as words. If I say “philosophy,” or “courage,” or “wisdom,” or “virtue,” and you don’t know what I mean, the only way I can clarify it is with more words. Different words, maybe, if I know what I’m talking about, but just words. Even actions based on abstract ideas don’t always communicate those ideas. If, in trying to communicate the virtue of humility, I show a Homeric Grecian a king who washes a fisherman’s feet, he wouldn’t see a virtuous king at all, but a slave, and a particularly lowly one at that. I wouldn’t be communicating humility, I’d be communicating servitude, and it would take many more words to clarify why that servitude is a desirable trait that we call “humility.”
So when we think of “virtue,” we quickly think of manly behaviors. We even perpetuate this mentality in the modern age: “Be a man! Man up!” The idea that manliness is desirable, not just for boys, but as the pinnacle of ethical behavior, is ingrained into the words we use at a more basic level than we consciously understand. The real challenge, then, is not to come up with a Newspeak word for virtue that abandons its old roots, but to change how we understand manliness. Manliness ought only to be desirable insofar as it resembles godliness, especially as exemplified in the God-man. Manliness isn’t Stoicism or Vulcan emotional control or thoughtless decision-making or brash hotheadedness or warmongering; “manliness”–virtue–is living as God intends for us, following the virtues as outlined by God and the Church (which I discussed in some detail a couple weeks ago, like I said).
But here I am going on about virtue and manliness, and I haven’t even mentioned the other topic in my title: virginity. As much as “virtue” has its roots in man, “virgin” has its roots in woman. Virginity, as a concept, is inherently feminine. To speak of a virgin man simply didn’t make sense. (It doesn’t help that male virginity cannot be proved or disproved, whereas female virginity is typically proved by the presence or absence of the hymen.) The word derives from Latin virgo, meaning a young girl or maiden, specifically one unmarried (contrast puella, “girl,” which has no particular connotation of virginity, and which could even mean a young wife). In Greek, the word was παρθένος (parthenos), and because of its meaning, it was given to Athena, the virgin goddess. Hence we call her temple in Athens the Parthenon. (Contrast Greek κόρη, which is basically identical to puella.)
No one used these words to refer to chaste men until Christians did.
Even the English word “virgin” was used about women for a hundred years before it was used about men.
So why do I say that there is virtus, virtue, manliness, in virginity? Because Scripture and Tradition make it clear. Paul’s strongest teaching on virginity comes from 1 Corinthians 6:12-7:40. Let me hit the highlights:
Flee fornication.1 Every error which a person does is outside the body; but the [one] fornicating errs into his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy spirit in you, whom2 [you] have from God, and [you] are not your own?31 Corinthians 6:18-19 (my translation)
But about [the things] which [you] wrote, [it is] beautiful for a man not to have intercourse with4 a woman; but on account of fornications, let each [man] have his own wife and let each [woman] have her own husband….But I say this [thing] according to an allowance, not according to a command. But5 [I] wish that all persons be even as myself; but each [man] has his own grace from God, the [one] thus, the other thus.1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-7 (my translation)
But about virgins I do not have a command of [the] lord, but I give a thought to be faithful as the [one] being pitied by [the] lord. Therefore I acknowledge this to be [from the beginning] beautiful on account of the compulsion having been put in place, because [it is] beautiful for a man to be thus. [Thou] have been bound to a woman, do not seek a release; [thou] have been released from a woman, do not seek a woman. But if [thou] marry [on a particular occasion], [thou] did not err, and if a virgin marries, [she] did not err; but the [ones] such as these will have affliction for the flesh, but I am sparing you. But [I] say this, brothers, the time is drawn together;6 for the remainder, both the [ones] having wives be just as the [ones] not having [them] and the [ones] wailing just as the [ones] not wailing and the [ones] rejoicing just as the [ones] not rejoicing and the [ones] buying just as the [ones] not possessing, and the [ones] using the cosmos just as the [ones] not using [it] up;7 for the form of this cosmos is passing by. But [I] wish that you be unconcerned. The unmarried [man] cares about the [things] of the lord, how [he] may please the lord; but the [man] having been married cares about the [things] of the cosmos, how [he] may please the wife, and [he] has been divided. Both the woman (the unmarried [one]) and the virgin care about the [things] of the lord, in order that [she] may be holy both in body and in spirit; but the [woman] having been married cares about the [things] of the cosmos, how [she] may please the husband. But this [I] say toward the benefit of you yourselves, not in order that [I] may cast a noose upon you, but toward the decent [thing] and [toward] constant attendance to the lord undistractedly.1 Corinthians 7:25-35 (my translation)
What’s the message here? That to abstain from marriage is a good thing, not because marriage is bad, but because serving the Lord is better. The temporal passes away, but the eternal does not; marriage is a temporal good, devotion to the Lord an eternal one. The married man is like Martha, concerned with what people will eat and where they will sit and how to get through the day, but the unmarried man, the one wholly devoted to God, is like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus growing closer to Him (cf. Luke 10:38-42).
Of course, marriage is still good. It can bring us closer to God, especially if we struggle with temptation (another verse in that chapter of 1 Corinthians says that we should marry so that we do not burn with passion; I think the play on words with burning is obvious). It is through marriage that we obey the very first commandment ever given to man by God: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
But the good of virginity goes beyond the good of marriage. Marriage is wonderful, mysterious, delightful, productive, and, admittedly, difficult. The striving and the joy make us better people. But virginity allows people to dedicate themselves to God in a way that married people cannot. You can spend your entire life devoted to that one single purpose–knowing God–with no distractions.
There is also a long association of virginity and purity; after all, before marriage, anyone truly virginal is pure and chaste. In that way, virginity embodies the perfect vision of Christ for His Church: that she be pure and perfect, prepared for the marriage-feast with Him (cf. Deuteronomy 31:16-22; 1 Chronicles 5:25; Psalm 24:1-6; Jeremiah 5:7-9; the entire Book of Hosea, especially Hosea 1; 3; 4; Matthew 25:1-13; Luke 20:34-36; and 2 Corinthians 11:2-3). For we say that the Church is the Bride of Christ (Matthew 9:14-15; Revelation 19:7-10; 21; 22:17).
So there is tremendous virtue in virginity. Besides the obvious development of self-control and devotion to the Lord, it represents the very relationship of Christ and the Church, the anticipatory moment, the time of preparation for His coming. The virgins of the Church help make her ready. Even more than that, virginity devoted to God represents the time after the wedding-feast, our eternal life, when everything we do is devoted to God, to praising and worshiping Him.
In the same way, marriage represents both that embrace of Christ and His Bride and also the unitive and procreative love within the Godhead, but remember this: in the resurrection, we neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are fully devoted to God. Virginity is more virtuous, not because marriage is in any way poor or weak, but because the dedicated virgin is getting a head start on eternal life with the Lord.
Next time on Swimming the Tiber, I’m going to examine the question of original sin. Some Protestants hold to this, others don’t, and even those that do have differing interpretations of what it means. That discussion will launch us into an examination of the seven sacraments, so get excited!
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1This Greek word, πορνεία, is one of the roots of our word “pornography,” which literally means a drawing or writing of fornication.
2This relative pronoun should be accusative (as “whom” in English), but it has been attracted to the case of its antecedent (“the holy spirit”), and so it is technically genitive (as “whose” in English). The sense does not change.
3Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16. Some manuscripts have this third clause as a separate sentence, ending the question after “from God.”
4This verb can mean simply “to touch,” but literally means “to fasten” or “to join” two objects together, and so in context, it clearly means to “join” with a woman (and is used that way in more places than just this passage).
5Some manuscripts: “For”
6This is a passive periphrastic form; that is, it uses a participle (“drawn together”) with a form of εἶμι (to be), in this case ἐστίν (“is”) to create this phrase. The point of using a periphrastic form instead of the regular form συνέσταλται is to emphasize the current state of affairs (that the time is short) rather than the action (that something shortened the time).
7As elsewhere, this is a reversal in idiom; this verb literally means to use down. In English, we say that we use something up, but in Greek, they use it down.